Why Mark Bittman Thinks You Should Be a Part-Time Vegan -- Plus a Recipe

Derek Goodwin
"Being a little bit vegan might be like being a little bit pregnant," said Mark Bittman, whose The VB6 Cookbook came out on May 6. That evening, he appeared on a panel at a benefit for Farm Sanctuary, a non-profit that combats factory farming and operates sanctuaries where farm animals can live out their days. The event, called "Conscientious Table," outlined the consequences of our country's food system -- climate change, animal suffering, health crises -- that are undoubtedly grim, but the overall mood was optimistic. Change, the speakers agreed, is still possible, and Bittman's quasi-vegan approach may be one solution to a host of complicated issues.

Bittman's latest book stems from a previous Vegan Before 6, a more philosophical volume in which he lays out a diet he adopted upon a doctor's recommendation, after gaining weight and facing the onset of diabetes. The idea is to make two meals a day plant-based, while allowing for flexibility at dinner time. But is this flexitarian method enough to address the tolls of industrial agriculture upon both personal and global well-being?

It's a move in the right direction, the panel agreed. At the talk, held before a full house in The Foundry, a gorgeous restored space in Long Island City, the speakers acknowledged that insisting Americans go totally vegan may be too daunting a proposition. Dr. Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, said that veganism exists on spectrum. "All or nothing thinking can really get in our way," she said. "It's about moving from apathy to empathy."

Empathy for animals is certainly a strong motivation for vegetarians and vegans, but the environmental wages of our food system, too, are a major concern. Speakers noted that industrial agriculture is a known producer of greenhouse gases, a force behind climate change. Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur cited other costs that most people don't consider, like the depletion of water and fossil fuels. Moreover, "70 percent of our health care costs would be eliminated if we shifted to whole food, plant based diets," he said.

"There is a greening trend in America," Bittman said. "The writing is on the wall that we're all going to eat a more plant-based diet." However, there are significant political roadblocks to encouraging Americans to eat more "real food," which Bittman defines as "food that has no ingredients, because it is an ingredient." Climate change denial persists within Congress, for instance, and election season begins in Iowa, a major agricultural center.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said that the blame leveled against farmers is misplaced: "The problem is a food system run by a very small number of companies," she said. And those companies aggressively market junk food to children, setting them up for lifelong addiction.

The obstacles to fixing a food system that contributes to poor diet and pollution are daunting, the speakers said. But it's possible to take action on a local and personal level: "You can be a part-time vegan if you want to be," Bittman said. The VB6 diet, with its emphasis on unprocessed foods, is one step. Bittman also encouraged the audience to consider how food is sold and marketed in their towns, and to ask contenders for local office to state their position on the food system. "It should be a proving ground for political candidates," he said.

Gene Stone, author of Forks Over Knives, agreed. "Everyone has some skill they can apply to address the issue," he said.

Bittman's skills were evident in the dishes served at the event, all made from recipes in the new cookbook. After the jump, find one of those recipes from The VB6 Cookbook to try at home.

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